Three years ago, I visited the base of Rocinha, one of the largest slums in South America. I was with a few cousins, trying to get a glimpse of what life is like in these infamous mountainside communities, discreetly shooting a few photos, noting the people around me. While we were walking around, I noticed a giant Hummer-like truck stopped in the parking lot next to us, a man clad in military green in the front seat. When I examined it closer, I read “Jeep Tour: Ecology and Culture.”
That was my first experience with what I have come to know as Favela Tours. But now living here, I’ve gotten a closer look at this form of Poverty Tourism, and I can’t say that I’m a fan. To me, it seems disrespectful to take a tour in order to see suffering, get a closer look at violence, however much it is a very human sentiment. I’ve heard poverty tourism compared to rubber necking: it’s not like anyone wants the suffering to happen, we just want to see it if it does.
What I struggle with the most, is the fact that this would never happen in the U.S. I’ve never heard of any tours of the Tenderloin, or certain areas of Oakland. Americans would never put up with that, it would be perceived as incredibly insensitive to say the least. And who would want to see it anyways? From my experience as a member of the middle to upper middle class in the U.S., Americans tend to avoid ghettos and poorer areas of town. But this form of voyeurism is apparently acceptable when it comes to other less developed countries, as we see these tours cropping up in the slums of India, and the “township tours” of post-apartheid South Africa. When it’s brown bodies that we are peering at, it becomes exotic, justified as the most “authentic” cultural experience one can gain while traveling in that country. Why is it that a trip to a less developed country with a majority brown-skinned population is not seen as “authentic” unless one sees poor people? Can we ever stop seeing brown bodies only as representations of poverty? There are a lot of rich Brazilians too, why aren’t they seen as “authentic” Brazilians? I personally see so many vestiges of colonialism in this idea that brown people are only “authentic” when they are poor…
There are many justifications provided for these tours, and poverty tourism in general. Many of the tours advertise that the money they make is put back into the community, turning their tour into a good deed, and not just selfish curiosity. One tour company, Exotic Tours, uses some of the money to put on Tourism Workshops for children in the community. According to their website, in these workshops, the children are trained on how to interact with tourists, among other things.
“Our students become professionals able to work as guides outside their community. ‘When they arrive they are shy and can barely speak. Through out my Tourism Workshop they even learn how to smile!’”
This particular quote deeply troubles me. I struggle with the fact that for many people living in poverty, tourism is a huge market for making money. I believe too often, it leads to exploitation, either of the individual, or of the tourist attraction they are marketing (in this case, the favelas). Tourism makes it more profitable to learn English than to go to school and learn history, math, science. That quote leaves me thinking about how African-Americans and Afro-Latinos are so prominent in the entertainment business not necessarily because of their talent so much as because white people find them entertaining or exotic.
I am left with the image of a young boy living in a favela, smiling for a camera, hand out-stretched for the change he is expecting. Sure, he makes the money, but how long will it last him? A week? A day? An hour? Poverty tourism seems like a way of alleviating a problem for a bit, while ultimately contributing to the very problem. In the face of all the claims that favela tours promote development within the communities, we forget that favela tours depend on the favela remaining poor, and therefore exotic to tourists. Every day, they make a profit off of the suffering of others.
I understand that this is a rather one-sided point of view. And I have to acknowledge that part of me completely understands the draw. I want to see how people live in favelas. I want to walk to the top to see the beautiful view of Rio. I want to volunteer in an NGO there, meet people from a different background. I just don’t want to do it from the front seat of a jeep, surrounded by other tourists snapping photos at the cute barefoot children.
But I can’t decide whether that makes me morally superior, or just a hypocrite. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.